Anyone looking for a way into the works of Peter Greenaway would do well to begin with The Greenaway Alphabet. His films are visually appealing but can challenge the unsuspecting viewer not prepared for their density of ideas and references. This very personal documentary by multimedia artist Saskia Boddeke, also Greenaway’s wife and collaborator, offers an insight into the man, his inspirations and the autobiographical and psychological background to his work.
We learn that his daughters from his first marriage appear as two of the characters in The Falls (1980), while a nostalgic visit to his childhood home in Newport, South Wales, is linked to scenes of wartime Britain in his Tulse Luper trilogy. It emerges that the character of Smut in Drowning by Numbers (1988) is based on Greenaway as a child, exhibiting the fascination with collecting and classifying that the director inherited from his father.
In contrast to the fairly rigorous order of Greenaway’s films, the organisation of The Greenaway Alphabet feels more instinctive and free-flowing. And this is not just Peter Greenaway’s alphabet, but that of his wife and, especially, their daughter Pip, his companion and foil throughout the film. Ideas and thoughts seem to surface naturally through their conversations rather than being predetermined or imposed.
As well as baring Greenaway’s soul, Saskia literally undresses him, which seems only fair as he has demanded the same of most of his actors over the years. She films him naked on the beach and in other intimate situations, such as having his hair cut or trying on trousers at the tailor, mundane moments that possess an honesty and simplicity.
This is very much Boddeke’s film and she deftly maintains the balance between the personal and the objective; affection for the subject is implicit but doesn’t obscure truth. At times she emulates Greenaway’s penchant for symmetrical framing, elsewhere using clips, multiple screens and projections to convey the effect she wants. Most appealing are the scenarios in which Peter and Pip engage in intellectual or artistic exercises in carefully chosen locations. Though staged, these vignettes never feel artificial and reveal an endearing side to Greenaway that rarely surfaced in public during the 1980s and 1990s.
During these decades, he was declared both a genius and ‘the most arrogant man in British cinema’ and, while the genius is still apparent, the arrogance appears to have faded with age. Any residual pretension is quickly dispensed by Saskia’s frank, no-nonsense interjections and Pip’s tenacious inquisitiveness. He certainly isn’t a ‘regular dad’ and, growing up in such a creative environment, it’s no surprise that Pip herself has become an artist.
At one point, Pip asks her father about his legacy, something he surely need not worry about. Whatever your view of his films (or of the concept of cinematic authorship), he is undeniably one of the few true auteurs of British cinema and from The Greenaway Alphabet it’s clear that his imagination and delight in the act of creation show no signs of waning. He has several films, artworks and writing projects in train and we can only hope he sees them all through to completion. In the meantime, Boddeke’s film eloquently reminds us of the humour and passion with which he purveys his unique view of art and human nature.
Dr Josephine Botting
A lesson in lexicography, H Is for House recounts the objects that begin with the letter H, as seen through the eye of a child – a tactic later to feature in the narrative for The Draughtsman’s Contract when an aristocratic toddler produces his own rendition of the country house’s gardens. But it is also a playful translation of sorts of the Canadian avant garde film Zorns Lemma (1970) by Hollis Frampton, in which the letters of the alphabet are serially moved through by way of images that represent or evoke each letter. The associations in Frampton’s film move from the obvious to the abstract and actively engage the viewer in decoding its rationale. Smoke is at what pointed used to represent the letter ‘S’. The connections are not always so obvious.
As Greenaway himself remarked for the benefit of cataloguers at the BFI National Archive: ‘No scripting in this film – it again follows the credo – make a film of collected images filmed in a casual way of what turns up whilst enjoying – for example – a country walk, often with my young family of the time – walking at their pace, interested in what at that time they were interested in – let the images dictate.’ Greenaway’s sharp eye would break down these eerie landscapes into a series of interrelated puzzle-like frames, just enough for him to retrospectively wind tall tales around like a knot. Or perhaps that should be a slip knot.
While the images in Greenaway’s features would often be centred around symmetrical framing and distance, his early films were constructed differently. Walking green landscapes surrounding the Wiltshire villages of Wardour and Bridzor – ‘They sound like Tolkien locations’ he says – Greenaway reflected on their deeply inscribed histories, noting how their once substantial populations had been decimated by the Black Death in 1346. The timeless rural idyll of the English countryside gives birth to fantasy and whichever narrative it is we want, and whether we make reference to their histories or not; a quality Greenaway fully exploited. Not least by playing with the dialogues that can take place between image and text.
Notes extracted from The Draughtsman’s Contract Blu-ray booklet (BFI, 2022)
H IS FOR HOUSE
Film-maker: Peter Greenaway
Production Company: Peter Greenaway
Title Design: Kenneth Breese
THE GREENAWAY ALPHABET
Director: Saskia Boddeke
Production Companies: Beeld, NTR
With the support of: Mediafonds, Fonds 21
Producer: Julia Emmering
Line Producer: Marita Ruyter
Production Co-ordinator: NTR Astrid Prickaerts
Commissioning Editor: Oscar Van Der Kroon
Camera: Ruzbeh Babol, Sander Snoep, Saskia Boddeke
High Speed Camera Operator: Jan Kees Dibbets
Editor: Gys Zevenbergen
Online Editing: Elmer Leupen
Grading: Joel Sahuleka
Music: Luca D’Algerto, Borut Krzisnik
Sound: Mark Wessner, Gabby De Haan
Audio Post-production: Huibert Boon
A BFI release
FRAMES OF MIND: THE FILMS OF PETER GREENAWAY
A Zed & Two Noughts
Tue 18 Oct 18:10; Sat 5 Nov 17:40; Sat 12 Nov 17:40; Mon 21 Nov 20:40; Sun 27 Nov 12:15
Peter Greenaway: Frames of Mind Season Introduction
Wed 19 Oct 18:10
The Belly of an Architect
Wed 19 Oct 20:30; Fri 18 Nov 18:20; Tue 22 Nov 18:10; Sat 26 Nov 15:30
Sat 22 Oct 13:50; Sun 6 Nov 14:40
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
Sun 23 Oct 15:30 (+ intro by Justin Johnson, Lead Programmer); Sat 12 Nov 14:55; Mon 28 Nov 17:50
Drowning by Numbers
Sun 23 Oct 18:00; Sat 19 Nov 14:30; Sun 27 Nov 18:00
Peter Greenaway Shorts Programme 1
Mon 24 Oct 18:10; Thu 10 Nov 20:40
Experimental Sound and Vision: Found Sounds, Lyrical Loops and Landscapes
Thu 27 Oct 18:15; Thu 17 Nov 18:15 (+ intro by author and musician David Toop)
Tue 1 Nov 17:40; Sun 20 Nov 18:00
Peter Greenaway: Pioneer of Cinema
Sat 5 Nov 12:00-17:00
The Unreliable Narrator: Adventures in Storytelling, Documentary and Misinformation
Sun 6 Nov 12:40; Fri 25 Nov 21:00
A TV Dante: Cantos 1-8
Tue 15 Nov 18:20
The Baby of Mâcon
Wed 16 Nov 20:30; Fri 25 Nov 18:00; Mon 28 Nov 20:30
The Pillow Book
Fri 18 Nov 20:30; Thu 24 Nov 20:30; Tue 29 Nov 17:40
Sun 20 Nov 12:50; Wed 30 Nov 20:35
Welcome to the home of great film and TV, with three cinemas and a studio, a world-class library, regular exhibitions and a pioneering Mediatheque with 1000s of free titles for you to explore. Browse special-edition merchandise in the BFI Shop.We're also pleased to offer you a unique new space, the BFI Riverfront – with unrivalled riverside views of Waterloo Bridge and beyond, a delicious seasonal menu, plus a stylish balcony bar for cocktails or special events. Come and enjoy a pre-cinema dinner or a drink on the balcony as the sun goes down.
BECOME A BFI MEMBER
Enjoy a great package of film benefits including priority booking at BFI Southbank and BFI Festivals. Join today at bfi.org.uk/join
We are always open online on BFI Player where you can watch the best new, cult & classic cinema on demand. Showcasing hand-picked landmark British and independent titles, films are available to watch in three distinct ways: Subscription, Rentals & Free to view.
See something different today on player.bfi.org.uk
Join the BFI mailing list for regular programme updates. Not yet registered? Create a new account at www.bfi.org.uk/signup
Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email